Tuesday, October 1

The Boys in the Band: Favorite Movie #7

1970 Drama
From Cinema Center Films
Directed by William Friedkin

Kenneth Nelson
Leonard Frey
Cliff Gorman
Frederick Combs
Laurence Luckinbill
Keith Prentice
Peter White
Reuben Greene
Robert La Tourneaux


My 7th favorite film of alltime is likely to be my most personal posting. Very few films, no matter how astonishing I may find them to be, have affected me so personally. This film started an upheaval in my life from which there was to be no return.

If you are unaware of it, it is truly a landmark film.  I found the three words on the above poster to be spot on... it is extraordinary, groundbreaking and controversial.  Indeed. There had never been a film like it by any stretch of the imagination and it unquestionably opened the door for gay-themed films to come. I have probably seen it scores of times and have roped countless family members and friends, both gay and straight, into watching it, some more than once.

I was married when I first saw it in 1970.  Funny, I don't remember if I saw it with my wife or not and I usually remember such things.  From 1970 to 1975, I thought of it countless times and dragged people into conversations about it. A thought that I kept to myself was that the film caused me to think of some ghosts of the past and I intended to keep them there. On the other hand, there were rumblings that threatened to tear apart the status quo. One day in 1975 a gay friend and former coworker, with whom I had had a falling out, called to encourage me to sign up for a $350 course called est. He promised it would change my life.

And it certainly did. I'd love to tell you all about it but it would take me far from my movie review. We'll jump to the end and tell you I got a divorce and would ultimately leave a longtime job and move to Maui. This would have likely all happened with just the est piece but I am clear that the seeds were germinated after seeing The Boys in the Band. This wasn't like seeing The Love Bug and then buying a VW. This was bigger, Baby, much bigger.

The film shocked me.  Even then I wasn't all that shockable, but it shocked me. The words were searing, often heartbreaking, frequently funny, sometimes poignant and as I was to discover over a number of years, packing wallops of truth.  These truths could be directed to gay men at large and to me personally. I have also seen bits and pieces of myself in most of the nine characters and sometimes that's been very painful and sometimes enlightening.

If you don't know what it's about, it's pretty simple. It's about a gay birthday party.  It takes place in New York in one afternoon and into the late evening, around midnight.  Michael is throwing a bash for his friend Harold and has invited a few of Harold's friends.  Michael has also invited one of his own gay friends and after an uninvited straight friend shows up, the party (and film) certainly takes on a different hue.

I've always found the story to be in two seamless parts... one is before the uninvited friend shows up and the other is after he appears.  The more dramatic moments are also pretty much timed to a rain squall that appears. Before the rain and the friend's arrival, the film is funny and more light-hearted as we are introduced to the various characters with most of the action taking place on the patio. After the deluge and moving inside the apartment, all hell breaks lose. The liquor has kicked in, the inhibitions have broken through and this crowd tell some steamy truths with hearts being broken and the evening, if not some lives, shattered.
The very fact that these two parts exist in the same film is, for me, part of the magic that comes from it. It was not altogether popular with gay people because they said it was little more than stereotyping, showing a slice of gay life that was far more negative than it really was.  Yet as I got older and became absorbed into the fabric of gay life, I thought TBITB got it pretty right.

I came to know plenty of characters like the ones in the films... the bitchy, campy, funny, wounded, conceited, happy, unhappy, uncertain, cautious, hustling, jock, fem, young, old, handsome, not so handsome, faithful, unfaithful, alcohol-addicted, drug-addicted, sex-addicted, vicious, thoughtful, loyal, fascinating, caring, religious, rich, poor.  So we got most all of these traits in the nine characters, so what?  It made my life a lot easier when I met people like these in real life.  I owe TBITB for that.
But the movies and therefore the public had never seen a film like this one.  Never. While this piece is about the movie and not the play, it would be incomplete to not at least mention the play. It was the rage in an off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway milieu for about three years. I believe it played for 1,001 performances. Many don't realize it really never played in any of the big Broadway houses.

It was written by Mart Crowley (on the left with his cast in the above picture) who had bounced around Hollywood for a few years, never really nailing down anything he wanted to do while working for Natalie Wood as her secretary/majordomo.  He wanted to write but it all remained pretty murky when one day Wood told him he needed to get off his butt and do something about it. She continued to employ him with lots of time off to tinker and manage his dangling modifiers. He scribbled down much of his own story and people he knew. He opted to write it as a play and the actress would help finance it.

The play, of course, was as much a landmark as the film would be.  No playwright had ever addressed the subject of homosexuality so openly and honestly. There had, of course, been very successful gay playwrights, such as Tennessee Williams, William Inge and Edward Albee, but really, they all just edged around the subject of gay in their works, if even that. Crowley knocked the entertainment community and the gay community on their asses.

He set some conditions in the discussions of turning his work into a film. He would come along as producer, the entire cast from the play (just nine actors) would reprise their roles as would Robert Moore, the play's director. He would lose on the latter only.
The powers at Cinema Center Films, while always supportive of the controversial project, thought that because it would star nine non-movie actors and be written and produced by a man who had never served in that capacity on a film, they would insist upon a movie director. It was a coup to acquire William Friedkin, who had, in fact, just completed a film called The Birthday Party. TBITB would be his fourth theatrical film (he started with Good Times starring Sonny and Cher) and it was a brave project for a fledgling director to take on. It could have ruined his career... a movie about gay people, for God's sakes. But Friedkin would go on to win an Oscar for his next film, The French Connection, and would helm the equally controversial The Exorcist, be excoriated for another gay-themed film, Cruising, and handle the riveting To Live and Die in L.A. I don't think it's unfair to say his career fell into a slump for years but in 2011 he came back with the sensational, but still controversial, Killer Joe, about a cop who moonlights as a hit man.

Not to demean Friedkin in the slightest, a man whose work I have mostly admired, but there wasn't in some ways a lot for him to do. It was a ready-made family and they certainly had the material down pat. But the director would bring his movie sensibilities to a story that had a claustrophobic feel to it. He opened it up by showing some New York locations as he  introduced the characters. There was a photography studio, a basketball court, a gay bar, a clothing store, a bookstore, a tunnel, a parking garage and 42nd Street's galaxy of male hustlers. The claustrophobic feel was still necessary as well because it provided the confinement that characters needed to dodge the slings and arrows that are to come.

The film uses basically one set... an apartment with scenes taking place in the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, living room and patio. For the latter, actress Tammy Grimes' patio was used for the afternoon shots. For the nighttime shots, both the patio and the apartment's various rooms were created at the studio.

Friedkin's gift was his facility for staging and blocking and he had his cameras move with such ease throughout the apartment. He also created scenes where there was main action in the foreground but with smaller groups in the background chatting or eating or laughing.

A highlight, of course, is the writing. I winced at some of the honesty, laughed myself silly, marveled at the clever phrasing and certainly noted the audacious use of swear words...certainly a bore these days but absolutely mind-boggling in the early 70s. And by God they said every dirty word ever invented... and then some.  I have taken away from the film more quotes than probably any film I've ever seen.  My partner and I crack ourselves up using words and phrases from TBITB.

And then there is the acting. I nominate this film for the best ensemble acting in the history of movies. That's quite a statement, I know, but I am certain I've never seen it done better. Some of that joy is heightened by the fact that this is a basically a one-set piece where the entire cast interacts with one another... like The Big Chill, Peter's Friends and many others.

This is the only one of my 50 favorite films where I can actually introduce you to the entire cast and I am taking advantage of it.



Kenneth Nelson is top-billed as Michael, the host of the party. I thought the emotional range he showed was mesmerizing. He starts as spoiled, hostile, in debt, fearful of losing his hair, unhappy about being gay but never truly addressing it until he has a breakdown by the film's finale. As the story shifts from the patio to inside the apartment, Michael begins drinking after a 5-week drying out period.  As one character says of him... when he's sober, he's dangerous. When he's drinking, he's lethal.  Crowley has said that although nine characters have bits and pieces of him, it is Michael who is most like him. It certainly occurs to me to say... oh my.

Frederick Combs is Donald, Michael's loving, loyal and rather forgiving friend.  I think when the naysayers of the film cry out stereotype, stereotype, perhaps they will recall Donald's decency.  Michael calls him a model fairy.  He cleans floors for a living (Michael refers to him as a charwoman) and he's deeply enmeshed in therapy. Crowley says that the Donald character is one of two in the film that was based on a best friend.  Happily, I've known quite a few Donalds in my time.

Funny, but a few weeks after I completed the main est course, I enrolled in a seminar called Be Here Now and among the participants was Combs. I never spoke with him but overheard his conversations with others during breaks and he seemed as impressive in person as he did in character as Donald.



Crowley's other best buddy was the inspiration for Harold, who is the guest of honor. It is his birthday. He loves being stoned, is sensitive about his looks and is every inch the Queen Bee.  As played by the gifted Leonard Frey, he delivers Crowley's lines like a whipsaw. He is the only one of the group who can control Michael to any degree. He speaks some of the films funniest and most quotable lines but he also echoes some of the most important. His entrance at the party, long after all others have arrived, is a gem.



I think years after seeing TBITB, most people, gay or straight, will
most remember Emory.   Stunningly played by Cliff Gorman, Emory is the flamboyant one and every gay party has an Emory. Over the years there has been much guessing over which actors are really gay and which are not. One who was not was Gorman, but it has never ceased to amaze me that a straight guy could play this role so convincingly. One character refers to him as a butterfly in heat as he flits and sashays throughout the party. He, too, delivers some of the film's funniest lines, and in fact, when the going gets rough with some of the others, it is Emory who brings us all back with some outrageously funny line.

Emory is Harold's friend and he knows all of Harold's other friends at the party. He serves more or less as the hostess to Michael's host. He is a decorator who works in a fancy Manhattan shop. He is still pining for the great love that never developed and has likely had no substantial relationship in his life. When the film turns dark (after that rain) and party games begin, our hearts break for Emory.

To this character I will always be most grateful for I learned something of great value. I stopped a bitter dislike I had for effeminate men. They are the same ones most obvious to straight people. I was always embarrassed by them and never understood the requirement to act like that. Emory taught me to get off it. Who cares? People are just people. His tears are just as wet as mine. The film teaches a valuable lesson in this regard.

Hank was perhaps the film's most compassionate character. He is still married to a woman but has left her and his two children for a man with whom he is having an uneasy relationship. They are the story's only couple.  As played by Laurence Luckinbill, Hank is a math teacher all focused on respectability. He has not really yet earned his gay wings.



Keith Prentice plays the other half of the partnership, fashion photographer Larry and he and Hank are friends of Harold's. He may sometimes be tied up but he will never be tied down. He likes 'em all, one after the other but one at a time. He drives Hank crazy and jealous with his infidelity. I thought the partners' scenes together were magnificent.

A couple of years after seeing the film, I was still closeted when I ran into Prentice at a San Fernando Valley bowling alley. Neither of us bowled so it was odd that we were there but we were the only two people at the bar so we chatted. I knew immediately who he was but was so tongue-tied chatting with him for about 20 minutes. We spoke of the making of the film, which thrilled me, and his fear that he'd never have a successful career because of the film, which saddened me. (More on this topic before we go.)



Without the character of Alan, the unexpected straight guest, there would be far less drama for he is the one who puts Michael on the edge of insanity. I think he is intentionally played ambiguously. Is he straight or closeted? Could he not know if he's gay?  He is a well-to-do Washingtonian who is separated from his wife. Because of that and the fact that he comes dressed in a tuxedo, Emory refers to him as the socialite nun. Michael says he is so pulled together that he wouldn't show any emotion in a plane crash. That proves to not be quite the case.

I've been to many a gay affair where the renegade straight person shows up and it never really works. If the straight one is uncomfortable, everyone is uncomfortable at some level and it is certainly true here. Surely the lack of comfort comes out of being, for a brief time, part of the minority, rare for straights in this world. Alan represents the straight audience. They're thinking what he's thinking.




Reuben Greene, as Bernard, the only black in the group, is a bookseller at Doubleday's who loans books to his friend Donald. Bernard is dashing and confident in the beginning but ends up  hopelessly drunk as he deals with self-esteem issues and the embarrassment of a phone call during Michael's party games. The fun Michael makes of him is some of the most blistering dialogue. It still makes me very uncomfortable after all these years and viewings.

And last is handsome Robert La Tourneaux, as Cowboy, who is Harold's gift from Emory. He is a hustler who has been bought for $20.  Every good gay party has, if not a hustler, certainly one or two sex gods who have an awareness of how to best pedal their wares. His role provides an outlet for Michael's scornful enmity and for some others' funniest lines.

It is astonishing that at least three of these actors weren't nominated for Oscars and the fact that they weren't gave birth to my disgust with the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences. Perhaps all could have fallen into the best supporting actor category but Kenneth Nelson could clearly have been a best actor nominee. I dare say he was more impressive than Ryan O'Neal in Love Story. In the supporting category both Gorman and Frey are deserving of nominations, but what we got was Richard Castellano in Lovers and Other Strangers, John Marley in Love Story and Chief Dan George in Little Big Man. I am getting pissed as I write this. We know what you voters are up to. Could you be more obvious?

One hears now and then about name actors' reluctance to accept gay roles because it could be damaging to their careers.  That may have changed some now with every straight actor in town taking on gay roles but it certainly was the thought in 1970.   But for TBITB the truth is that quite a number of unknown gay actors never had much of a career after this film. What a shame. Prentice was right to be concerned. Gorman, who had more of a career than the others, said TBITB was the worst career move he ever made and a couple of others echoed his sentiments.

A further sad note is that La Tourneaux died in 1986, Frey in 1988, Combs and Prentice in 1992 and Nelson in 1993. All died of AIDS or HIV-related illnesses. Gorman would die of other causes in 2002. Greene presumably is still alive but has virtually disappeared. White and Luckinbill are also still alive and both speak favorably if not affectionately of their experience in this remarkable film.

I certainly agree. We all owe everything to Mart Crowley.

Finally, here is a rather long, rather R-rated clip that will either introduce you to or provide some renewed fondness for this movie.




Review of Gravity

1 comment:

  1. So many great lines! I never felt "roped" into watching it with you. And as for being the sole (or mostly so) straight guy at the party....well, I learned a lot and had some good giggles.